January 30, 2009
Underdogs, Chemistry and Momentum
We hear it all the time: “America loves an underdog.” Well, sort of. We love underdogs who win. Unless you are Native American, your ancestors got kicked out of, didn’t fit into or escaped war in another country. Underdogs all.
But the essence of the American dream isn’t that we are a bunch of sloppy second mutts – it’s the success of those outcasts on a new shore. Football players themselves may be wealthy Alpha Males, far removed from the “tired”, the “poor” and the “huddled masses”, but we fans are the descendants of just those wayfarers – living on hope and grit. So when the team who has never been to the Big Dance and at whom football experts scoffed in December suddenly arrives in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII of course we cheer. Well, except for those who live in the Steel City.
As if that weren’t enough there’s that whole the-quarterback-used-to-bag-groceries thing to warm the heart of any American. We’re suckers for a rags-to-riches story: we’re all sure it could happen to us to us too. Why not? Kurt Warner did it. Not only that – he’s resurrected a career that many thought had been in need of a plug pulling for the past few years. The new hero of every greybeard in America, this 37-year-old Rip Van Winkle has awakened as the most dynamic leader in the NFL this season (with a serious honorable mention to another venerable one – Ray Lewis). He has his entire roster believing in a Super Bowl miracle and many fans hoping against all logic that he could be right.
Warner is that rarest of cats (or birds in this case): a man of faith who manages not only to avoid appearing a weak-willed milk toast, he even practices what he preaches – even though he wisely doesn’t preach much. He’s fiery, competitive as hell and without doubt the MAN in that locker room. He and the new coaching staff have created a winning atmosphere within a franchise that hadn’t even had a home playoff game in 60 years. Players can’t jump onboard the winning game plans fast enough. They live in a “Yes We Can” bubble that has visions of football triumph. And that, folks, is team chemistry.
But how on earth does a team manufacture a Super Bowl run out of the ashes that was the Cardinals’ December record? Blowout losses, a total inability to combine airplane rides with wins, a disgruntled star running back, a star wide receiver without a new contract but WITH a broken face and losses to almost every national contender they played. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one way to pull a team out of slump quicksand and point them toward an NFC Championship: leadership. Let’s face it, this is essentially the same group of players that Dennis Green put together in his tenure as head coach – and a good job he did of assembling talent. But they didn’t win until Whisenhunt, Grimm, Pendergast and Haley took over. Talk about fiery and competitive! No wonder they benched playboy Leinart in favor of Warner. That decision exemplifies the gutsy style found in the high-flying offense, the trick plays and a defense that is suddenly playing like believers. Each of their post-season victories was a come-from-behind win, so it’s clear this team never succumbs to self-doubt. That must be it: belief, faith, conviction – whatever you want to call if. The Cardinals have it – or they are doing a damn good acting job.
January’s roll of wins has the red birds flying high and that momentum is the only reason that Vegas didn’t place the spread in double digits. Let’s face it, Pittsburgh is a consistently dominating force on both sides of the ball and should be favored by at least 14 points. As Warner put it, “Everyone said, ‘They can’t beat Atlanta, they can’t win in Carolina, they don’t stand a chance against Philadelphia and there’s no way they’ll stop the Steelers.’” Yep, that’s what we all thought. But now we aren’t so sure – and Pittsburgh is only a single touchdown favorite.
Even Pittsburgh fans have to admit that this “fledgling” among champions has an aura of possibility about them that appeals to our fighting American spirit. We’ll rally round the hard hats and wave the terrible towels until they shred if the Steelers win. Because the bottom-line in the U.S.A. is coming in first place. And the Steelers represent the kind of hard working, salt of the earth people that carved a superpower out of forest, prairie and desert. It will be no betrayal of our red, white and blue self-image if Pittsburgh hoists the Lombardi trophy. But if Arizona somehow manages to pull this off, somewhere deep in our hearts, on that one day at least, the Cardinals will be America’s Team.